Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Anti-Liberal University

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) had a wonderful colloquium at the Union League ClubAnne Neal, the head of ACTA, organized the event, and chair was Benno Schmidt, chair of the CUNY Board of Trustees.  The audience consisted of trustees like my great friend Candace de Russy, academics, and leaders in the academic reform movement like Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.  Several leading philanthropists were among the 35 to 40 participants.  The speakers included Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School, Neil Hamilton of the University of St. Thomas Law School, and Donald Downs, Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The distinguished group of trustees, donors, activists, and academics engaged in a riveting dialogue.  Professor Downs and I have subsequently exchanged some emails about the nature of the university.  I emailed him my views on the history of the university:  Universities never had a golden age, for they have always been anti-liberal, and the political correctness since the 1980s follows directly from universities' totalitarian roots in Germany.  This is what I wrote to Professor Downs:

I agree except for this question:  Was the university ever a liberal institution?  Americans are liberals, and liberalism in America was due to the American people themselves, neither to the Founding Fathers nor to the Constitution.  As they have been induced to adopt state activism, which by definition is not liberalism (Louis Hartz notwithstanding; he is brilliant until he gets to FDR), they have discarded liberalism, and so has the Supreme Court.   The university has contributed to and possibly induced the rejection. 

Were American universities ever liberal institutions?  They began in America as Christian colleges; they were transformed in the late 19th century by Daniel Coit Gilman and Charles Eliot mimicking German universities.  The German universities were not liberal institutions, as Readings’s* history implies.  Their role was to support the German state.  State activist liberalism in America came from the German universities via the historical school of economics (Wisconsin’s Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons were pivotal in that regard).  The German historical school had fought with the Austrian school in the 19th century,  and it was ultimately triumphant when one of its last followers, Werner Sombart, evicted Ludwig von Mises from the German Sociological Society under the Nazi racial laws (Sombart was old then, and he died a year or two later).  

In other words, I suspect that from the beginning Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Wisconsin, etc. were formed by anti-liberal actors; the liberal intonation coopted popular American belief in liberalism and was context or background to the inner impulse of the university, which was anti-liberal from the beginning. 

People who (a) believe in liberalism and (b) believe in learning want to believe that there was a golden age of university liberalism, but I am doubtful.  I don’t think the histories of universities will bear out that belief.  It is true that someone like William Graham Sumner advocated laissez faire at Yale, but the Mugwump, Gilded-Age period was still one when the university was a Christian institution. Yale had not evolved into a research-based university until the end of or after Sumner’s career.   There was, I recall, a conflict involving Ely when he taught at Cornell, which caused him to be fired; he moved to Michigan before Johns Hopkins and Wisconsin. That was still during the Mugwump period, and as Progressivism became ascendant the AAUP adopted the principles of academic freedom based on liberal rhetoric.  But the AAUP and universities themselves were Progressive institutions; in a sense, they were the source of Progressivism.  The rise of Progressivism during the 1890-1920 period (I would argue we are still in the age of Progressivism) followed directly from the influence of the German university on America.

*Bill Readings, The University in Ruins

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Open Letter to Carl Paladino Re His School Board Bid

Dear Carl:

One issue you might consider is assurance of learning.   The median writing ability in American schools has deteriorated to the point where the median entering college student is functionally illiterate; college does not teach them basic skills, and they graduate illiterate. There are simple writing measurements that can be done to determine the quality of writing education at the school level, but these need to be graded by an objective, outside source such as ETS, not by the school system itself.  Cheating on objective tests is endemic in school systems across the country. The tests cannot be available to the schools.   

My mother was a New York City school teacher, and she described this to me in the 1970s in her school district in Spanish Harlem (District Four),  which was overseen by Anthony Alvarado, who was later made chancellor of New York City’s schools because of his supposed improvement in test scores. I vividly recall my mom describing the cheating in his administration in the 1970s.   The scoring of the tests must be done by outside agencies, and the tests cannot be administered by the school system, especially by the teachers or principals of the local schools.

 The conceptual issue in teaching writing is simple. It is like teaching a kid to ride a bicycle.  You teach them the rules, then they write, then you improve what they wrote, then they rewrite the same essay.  You teach them again, they try it again, you correct it again, and you have them rewrite it again.  The process is time consuming, so teachers avoid it.  They need to be forced or encouraged to spend the time on it.  The same is with basic math. The students must be given problems; they must be forced to redo problem they don’t get.  The teachers don’t like doing the grading, which is grueling.  They need incentives, and they need to be taught the importance of teaching basic writing and math.  One alternative way to teach writing might be programmed instruction.  

Diane Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform, which I recommend. In most schools progressive education is malarkey.  The students need to be taught the multiplication tables, multiplying fractions and the like by rote, not by the new math.  As well, they need to be taught writing by practice, like learning to ride a bicycle, not by “creativity.”   Other issues may be important too, but unless the students are taught the basics they will continue to graduate as illiterates.  I have 100 college students 80 or 90 of whom will graduate unable to write clearly. One student was promoted to district manager of a fast food chain, and she told me that she goes to the  College Learning Center to have them write memos she needs to write for her job.

I have spent 40 hours per week working on this for the past three years. I get results, but one class and one professor can’t undo 16 years of neglect of basic skills.  I stopped having them write term papers because they are unable to write English.  I have them write one-page papers that I grade and have them rewrite.  Then I grade them again.  This is time consuming, and most college professors do not have the grammar training or the willingness to do this.  It should be done at the elementary school level.  Currently, resources are massively squandered.  America graduates college seniors who cannot write at the level of third graders.  It is a scandal.

Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Brooklyn College

From: Carl Paladino []
Sent: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 6:33 PM
Subject: Open Memo to the People of the City of Buffalo from Carl Paladino